Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Lenny Bruce

Ghosts and diversions

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Over the weekend, after I heard that the magician Ricky Jay had died, I went back to revisit the great profile, “Secrets of the Magus,” that Mark Singer wrote over a quarter of a century ago for The New Yorker. Along with Daniel Zalewski’s classic piece on Werner Herzog, it’s one of the articles in that magazine that I’ve thought about and reread the most, but what caught my attention this time around was a tribute from David Mamet:

I’ll call Ricky on the phone. I’ll ask him—say, for something I’m writing—“A guy’s wandering through upstate New York in 1802 and he comes to a tavern and there’s some sort of mountebank. What would the mountebank be doing?” And Ricky goes to his library and then sends me an entire description of what the mountebank would be doing. Or I’ll tell him I’m having a Fourth of July party and I want to do some sort of disappearance in the middle of the woods. He says, “That’s the most bizarre request I’ve ever heard. You want to do a disappearing effect in the woods? There’s nothing like that in the literature. I mean, there’s this one 1760 pamphlet—Jokes, Tricks, Ghosts, and Diversions by Woodland, Stream and Campfire. But, other than that, I can’t think of a thing.” He’s unbelievably generous. Ricky’s one of the world’s great people. He’s my hero. I’ve never seen anybody better at what he does.

Coming from Mamet, this is high praise indeed, and it gets at most of the reasons why Ricky Jay was one of my heroes, too. Elsewhere in the article, Mamet says admiringly: “I regard Ricky as an example of the ‘superior man,’ according to the I Ching definition. He’s the paradigm of what a philosopher should be: someone who’s devoted his life to both the study and the practice of his chosen field.”

And what struck me on reading these lines again was how deeply Jay’s life and work were tied up in books. A bookseller quoted in Singer’s article estimates that Jay spent more of his disposable income on rare books than anyone else he knew, and his professional legacy might turn out to be even greater as a writer, archivist, and historian as it was for sleight of hand. (“Though Jay abhors the notion of buying books as investments, his own collection, while it is not for sale and is therefore technically priceless, more or less represents his net worth,” Singer writes. And I imagine that a lot of his fellow collectors are very curious about what will happen to his library now.) His most famous book as an author, Learned Pigs & Fireproof Women, includes a chapter on Arthur Lloyd, “The Human Card Index,” a vaudevillian renowned for his ability to produce anything printed on paper—a marriage license, ringside seats to a boxing match, menus, photos of royalty, membership cards for every club imaginable—from his pockets on demand. This feels now like a metaphor for the mystique of Jay himself, who fascinated me for many of the same reasons. Like most great magicians, he exuded an aura of arcane wisdom, but in his case, this impression appears to have been nothing less than the truth. Singer quotes the magician Michael Weber:

Magic is not about someone else sharing the newest secret. Magic is about working hard to discover a secret and making something out of it. You start with some small principle and you build a theatrical presentation out of it. You do something that’s technically artistic that creates a small drama. There are two ways you can expand your knowledge—through books and by gaining the confidence of fellow magicians who will explain these things. Ricky to a large degree gets his information from books—old books—and then when he performs for magicians they want to know, “Where did that come from?” And he’s appalled that they haven’t read this stuff.

As a result, Jay had the paradoxical image of a man who was immersed in the lore of magic while also keeping much of that world at arm’s length. “Clearly, Jay has been more interested in the craft of magic than in the practical exigencies of promoting himself as a performer,” Singer writes, and Jay was perfectly fine with that reputation. In Learned Pigs, Jay writes admiringly of the conjurer Max Malini:

Yet far more than Malini’s contemporaries, the famous conjurers Herrmann, Kellar, Thurston, and Houdini, Malini was the embodiment of what a magician should be—not a performer who requires a fully equipped stage, elaborate apparatus, elephants, or handcuffs to accomplish his mysteries, but one who can stand a few inches from you and with a borrowed coin, a lemon, a knife, a tumbler, or a pack of cards convince you he performs miracles.

This was obviously how Jay liked to see himself, as he says with equal affection of the magician Dai Vernon: “Making money was only a means of allowing him to sit in a hotel room and think about his art, about cups and balls and coins and cards.” Yet the reality must have been more complicated. You don’t become as famous or beloved as Ricky Jay without an inhuman degree of ambition, however carefully hidden, and he cultivated attention in ways that allowed him to maintain his air of remove. Apart from Vernon, his other essential mentor was Charlie Miller, who seems to have played the same role in the lives of other magicians that Joe Ancis, “the funniest man in New York City,” did for Lenny Bruce. Both were geniuses who hated to perform, so they practiced their art for a small handful of confidants and fellow obsessives. And the fact that Jay, by contrast, lived the kind of life that would lead him to be widely mourned by the public indicates that there was rather more to him than the reticent persona that he projected.

Jay did perform for paying audiences, of course, and Singer’s article closes with his preparations for a show, Ricky Jay and His 52 Assistants, that promises to relieve him from the “tenuous circumstances” that result from his devotion to art. (A decade later, my brother and I went to see his second Broadway production, On the Stem, which is still one of my favorite memories from a lifetime of theatergoing.) But he evidently had mixed feelings about the whole enterprise, which left him even more detached from the performers with whom he was frequently surrounded. As Weber notes: “Ricky won’t perform for magicians at magic shows, because they’re interested in things. They don’t get it. They won’t watch him and be inspired to make magic of their own. They’ll be inspired to do that trick that belongs to Ricky…There’s this large body of magic lumpen who really don’t understand Ricky’s legacy—his contribution to the art, his place in the art, his technical proficiency and creativity. They think he’s an élitist and a snob.” Or as the writer and mentalist T.A. Walters tells Singer:

Some magicians, once they learn how to do a trick without dropping the prop on their foot, go ahead and perform in public. Ricky will work on a routine a couple of years before even showing anyone. One of the things that I love about Ricky is his continued amazement at how little magicians seem to care about the art. Intellectually, Ricky seems to understand this, but emotionally he can’t accept it. He gets as upset about this problem today as he did twenty years ago.

If the remarkable life that he lived is any indication, Jay never did get over it. According to Singer, Jay once asked Dai Vernon how he dealt with the intellectual indifference of other magicians to their craft. Vernon responded: “I forced myself not to care.” And after his friend’s death, Jay said wryly: “Maybe that’s how he lived to be ninety-eight years old.”

A comedian reads the newspaper

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A few days ago, I was leafing through Ladies and Gentlemen—Lenny Bruce, the monumental biography of the legendary standup comic by Albert Goldman and Lawrence Schiller. My eye was caught by a description of a typical performance by Bruce, who died in 1966:

When Lenny starts to spritz, interspersed with the hip jargon, riding along the bops and beats of his Broadway-Brooklyn tachycardic speech pattern, are allusions to big sounds like Stravinsky, Picasso, Charlie Parker, José Limon and James Joyce. Jazz, existentialism, analysis, peyote cults, and California. He’s concerned about the racial scene and the man in the White House and the economy, the way the country is changing. Speaks from experience, done an awful lot of reading.

These days, we may not expect our comedians to drop allusions to Stravinsky or José Limon, but we’re still interested in what they have say about “the racial scene and the man in the White House and the economy, the way the country is changing.” It’s part of a tradition of turning to standup comics for wisdom—or truth—that can largely be traced back to Bruce himself. And here’s the punchline, as Goldman delivers it: “The image is a bitch to sustain. Lenny isn’t that knowledgable about jazz. He’s never been to Europe since the Navy. Most everything he knows, he picks up from the movies.”

This pressure to seem informed about current events is one to which most of us can relate, and it must be particularly challenging to those figures who find themselves at the forefront of the culture, where we expect them to be inhumanly knowledgeable about everything while making the result seem effortless. As Goldman points out, though, there are ways of getting around it: “Mort Sahl found the solution before Lenny. It’s called osmosis.” He continues:

The way Sahl worked? Wherever he was, at home or on the road, he would have his room lined with magazines and books. He never read anything. A voracious skimmer. By flipping through this and staring at that, reading a sentence here and picking up a word there, he got a very good idea of where everything was. When he went into his monologue, you would swear that he had digested the whole world for that week. Charles de Gaulle, Dwight Eisenhower, segregation, Shelley Berman, trade unions, Marty, Dave Brubeck, New York, Berkeley, Beckett, newspapers, coffeehouses, sandals, J.D. Salinger, filter-tip cigarettes, the State Department, Dick Clark, German radios, birth control, Charles Van Doren, Adlai Stevenson, natural-shoulder suits, Cuba, Israel, Dave Garroway, the Diners’ Club, Billy Graham, sports cars, the Strategic Air Command—wow! A barrage!

And if you replace that catalog of topics with one that seems more current—Red Hen, zero tolerance, “This is America,” Harley Davidson, and that’s just this week—it still captures something of what we expect from our late night hosts and talking heads on a daily basis.

The ability to skim a newspaper and turn it into a monologue for an audience every night is a valuable skill, and it can earn millions for those who possess it. But there’s no particular reason that comedians or pundits need to do the skimming themselves. In the period about which Goldman is writing, Bruce’s solution centered on the unlikely figure of Terry Lane, his assistant and a former burlesque drummer:

Lenny doesn’t need all this crap. He has an imagination and he’s really funny, not just nervous, like Sahl. But the trick is the same. Neither a reader nor a skimmer, what’s he supposed to do? Just accept it? Be a schmuck? Oh, no! There are always people who can help you. You don’t have to take a lot of shit from them either. Just sit a guy like Terry down and say: “Now look man, here’s the gig. I need an intellectual seeing-eye dog. Somebody who can check out the papers every day, read Time and Newsweek, do a little research for me, and just set me up nice so when I go out on the floor tonight, I’m the best-informed person in the city. Dig?”

What Goldman is describing here is basically the relationship between a star comic and his head writer, as enacted in a seedy hotel room in Times Square instead of backstage at The Tonight Show. And while Terry Lane’s résumé may no longer be typical—his equivalent today would be more likely to have gone to Harvard—his personal qualifications are much the same: “What grabbed Lenny was the fact that Terry was a reader…Lenny hadn’t got the patience, the concentration, the sitzfleisch. When pushed too hard he got terrible headaches. But Terry there, at the table between shows, would sit, riddling off titles like a college English professor…Lenny was impressed.”

But the real takeaway here is how this approach to current events has expanded outward from the nightclubs to radio and cable news, which is where Bruce’s true successors can be found. Goldman nicely describes the skill in question:

And the system works fine. Terry or Richey or Benny or whoever is traveling with Lenny is always a smart, studious sort of cat, who can feed him facts and help him learn big new words out of the dictionary. After all, what is literacy? Words. How do you learn words? Hear them. If you have a good ear and a tongue that can mimic anything you hear, you can learn whole languages by rote. Lenny is a mind-mouth man. His brain is located somewhere between his ears and his tongue. All he has to do is get the hang of a word, and he finds a place to slip it into his act.

These days, many of us get our news exactly from such “mind-mouth” men or women, whose gift consists of taking a few headlines and spinning them into thirty minutes of daily content. On the left, they’ve traditionally come from the ranks of improv, standup, and sketch comedy; on the right, which has trouble coming up with funny people, from talk radio. (Rush Limbaugh got his start as a disc jockey, which points to the fact that his true power is the ability to talk into a microphone for hours.) I’m not denigrating this talent, which is so rare that only a handful of people seem capable of doing it for large audiences at any one time. And we could do worse than to take our political cues from the writers at The Daily Show. But it’s still a simulacrum of insight, rather than the real thing. And we need to think hard about what happens when so many people turn to it for their information—including the man in the White House.

Written by nevalalee

June 26, 2018 at 8:20 am

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